Friday, 12 April 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 32


To Mick and Mulac, fleeing the ghastly realms of Nul-y-Gray, Place of the Undead, a fresh breeze rippling across The Dragon Hills had tasted sweeter by far than the finest vinre.  They ran and skipped like lambs until, finally, collapsing out of breath on the tawny grass.
     Nearby, a pretty snake slithered past them. They would need his help, Ricci knew, but a commanding voice in his head warned that now was not the time to change back. “I wish!” muttered Ricci crossly, having got the last three changing spells completely wrong. It was almost a relief not to have to bother for a while and thus deprive Astor of the satisfaction of watching him make a fool of himself. Astor could be more supportive, surely? But whenever Ricci protested, the great warlock would invariably comment how the only way to learn was by correcting one’s own mistakes. That’s all very well, Ricci fumed, darting out his tongue but failing to catch a passing gai fly, but just look where those mistakes had gotten them all so far!
      “Listen!” Mulac pricked up his ears, crawled up the mound where they sprawled and peered over the top. A snake got there first but seemed harmless enough so the Nu-gen paid it scant attention.
      “It could be the others!” Mick whispered excitedly, drawing level with Mulac while cautiously emulating the Nu-gen by remaining on his belly.
       “There are too many,” Mulac replied sofly, “and these are no krills either. I am certain of it.”
      “Thank God for that! But how can you be sure?”
     “Because a krill’s vile body shines, even at a distance, like a mirror to the devil. Besides, they smell. Have you forgotten so soon?” Something closely resembling a grin crossed the surly visage and it struck Mick that sometimes he almost liked the Nu-gen. “But do not thank your god too soon. If I am right, these could pose a greater threat than krills.”
      “Who are they?”
      “Druids perhaps since we cannot be far from the Vale of Ca-an. Some are still said to worship there and make other mischief.”
      “My grandfather is a Druid,” said Mick defensively.
      “Perhaps,” agreed Mulac absently, “but it was not the Mage of Mages who kept us company at Mal-y-Dros. Astor would never have been so careless. It was an image sent to trap you.”
      Again, Mick was prompted to ask, “How can you be sure?”
     The Nu-gen shrugged. “I wish I knew. All my life I have been visited by strange feelings and even stranger thoughts. They are as much a part of me as my right hand. They make little sense but nor do they pose any threat. It was they who brought me to Mal-y-Dros, I am certain of it. Like it or not, motherworlder, our destinies are interwoven by forces beyond our understanding…yet,” he added under his quick breath.
      “I rather liked the old boy at first,” Mick confessed, “But he changed somehow…”
      “Even the most powerful dark spells cannot escape White Magic for long,” muttered Mulac. You can be sure Astor guessed what was up.” 
      "You know Astor?”
     To Mick’s amazement, Mulac actually laughed. “We Nu-gen are considered to be worth less than the dirt beneath your feet, motherworlder. We have no truck with magic nor would the likes of Astor spare the likes of me a passing glance. But legends are told about him in my tribe. It is said, as you suggest, that he has links with Druids. They say, too, that he has dallied with elves and his daughter, Galia, was part elven.”
“Galia?” whispered Mick and tried to recall the bare bones of the tall tale Ricci had spun what already seemed a lifetime ago. “She was married to Michal the Great, right?” 
      “You know our lore?” Mulac could not hide his surprise.
      “A little…”
      “Yes, Galia was his consort. All the bloodline and other poor souls, too, perished in the Great Fire. Yet, even to this day, it is rumoured that Galia and her children escaped.”
      “So what happened to them?”
     Mulac shrugged. “Who knows? It is probably just rumour. But can you imagine such a female? Part eleven, part druid. What wouldn’t all Mamelon give for such a creature to aid us now?”
     Mick felt oddly uncomfortable and fell silent. Not far away, a snake slithered towards a nearby cave. These two were getting too close for comfort, thought Ricci nervously. The Master had a grudging respect for Nu-gen and he was beginning to understand why. This Mulac was nobody’s fool. Even so, it would be just his hard luck if the Master suspected he had been giving away too much too soon!
      Mulac continued to observe the Druids as they formed a circle and fancied he could hear a chanting in the wind. By force of habit, he clutched the disc that had hung around his neck for as long as he could remember. It has always been a source of comfort, strength too. For a moment, it felt furry between his fingers – like wolf skin. Wolves gathered in the nether realms of memory. But these were not beasts of prey on the hunt or at a kill…but romping and playing much the way children once had on Mamelon. He felt a warm, eager licking sensation all over – and why not?  Had he not lived among wolves once? Certainly, he had never feared them. Yet how he had come to find himself among them, he had no recollection. He had asked the Magela many times. She always smiled and changed the subject. Eventually, he had stopped asking.
      Out of the corner of an eye, Mulac spotted a snake gliding towards what looked like a small cave. “Look,” he whispered to the motherworlder, “We can shelter there and eat. Go, start a fire while I shall catch us a tasty rabbit.”
      “Isn’t that a bit risky?” Mick was dubious.
      “Are you hungry?”
      “You bet. I’m starving!”
      “We Nu-gen have a saying. If a wise man listens to his head and a fool follows his heart, only a complete idiot ignores his stomach! I won’t be long.” The grin was unmistakable this time as he crawled off, away from either snake or Druids, leaving Mick to wonder how he was expected to get a fire going.
      At the entrance to the cave, Mick gathered armfuls of brush and dry grasses.  Once inside, he took the puli from his tunic pocket and pointed. Nothing happened. He heaved a sigh. It looked as though if he would have to resort to rubbing a couple of twigs together although he had always been sceptical that it ever worked, even for Boy Scouts. But it had to be worth a try. He glared and gave the puli one last chance.  “Come on, you know you can do it. Light me a fire, dammit!” he almost shouted. Instantly feeling foolish, he was about to return the thing to his pocket when, without warning, it burst into life and shot a tiny flame into the little pile. By the time Mulac returned with not one but two rabbits, if on the skinny side, Mick had a good fire blazing just inside the cave’s entrance.
      Ricci slithered further into the cave, the tantalising smell of rabbit as good an excuse as any to try another changing spell. The cave itself turned out to be much bigger than it looked. Ricci found a spot where he would not bang his head once he reverted to normal self. He was about to utter what he hoped – this time – would prove the right incantation when he sense something bad, very bad.
      Hastily sliding along the rock floor of the cave by the way he had only just come, Ricci paused by the campfire where Mick and Mulac were now talking with a stranger. One look told Ricci the worst. From the strained expression on the Nu-gen’s face, he suspected Mulac, too, had guessed the newcomer’s identity. Once again it struck Ricci that this Mulac was an extraordinary young man. For a Nu-gen, he was really quite remarkable. More than meets the eye… he mused, I’ll say! curling up unobtrusively nearby to watch and listen.
      The stranger, a hunchback, flung Mulac a fiendish smile and Mick felt chilled to the marrow in spite of the fire’s warmth.  “You know me, then, Nu-gen.” It was not a question.
      “I know you,” growled Mulac.
      “So who is he?” Mick wanted to know, “What’s his name? Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
     “You heard him…” The hunchback continued to fix Mulac with an icy stare. “What’s his name? Aren’t you going to introduce us?” mimicking the motherworlder with such perfection that Mick’s blood ran cold.
     “Is he a Druid?” Mick was genuinely curious and unprepared for cackles of laughter that erupted from both Nu-gen and hunchback simultaneously. It was a horrible sound. Mick put out his palms up to the fire. But the gesture was more by way of an instinctive self-defence mechanism than any desire to warm his hands.
      “He is a Stalker. Stalkers have no need of a name. Besides, any name would be too good for them,” snarled Mulac.  “They are evil and serve the Dark.”
      “I don’t understand.” Mick could not quite decide whether they might be pulling his leg.  If they were, he reflected grimly, they made an incredible double act.
      “Will you explain or shall I?” the Stalker asked Mulac in so conversational a tone that left Mick feeling thoroughly nonplussed.
      “There are those among even the darkest souls that fear Death,” Mulac, too, spoke matter-of-factly, “so they make a pact with the Dark in exchange for a freedom of sorts. They wander the world selecting souls that otherwise may well have passed the Dark by…”
      “Like ours,” Mick gave a dry laugh.
      “Like ours,” Mulac agreed, but so placidly that Mick wanted to shake some sense into him.
      “But that’s daft. What have we done to deserve…?” then Mick paled, anticipating the answer before it came.
      “Kirin meant well, but when he led us through Nul-y-Gray he broke all the laws of Man and Beast and so did we. Now we must pay the price.”
      “He’s come…”
      “For our souls, yes...”
      “He’s going to kill us?” Mick jumped up in horror.
      “A Stalker may take with him only one soul at a time,” said Mulac slowly.
      “So how does he choose which one goes walkies?” But Mick’s feeble attempt at a joke fell on deaf ears.
      “If you mean, how does he decide which one of us dies, he doesn’t. We do.” Mulac met Mick’s appalled expression with a steady gaze that betrayed no ounce of feeling. It was surreal.
      “You mean…?” Mick stammered.
     “That one of us must kill the other, yes. That way, one soul goes straight to the Dark and the other is left to wait.”
      The three figures around the fire looked from one to the other and then into the flames where the eyes of the Devil himself seemed to leap out at them, leering and triumphant.
      Ricci gave the unholy scene his entire concentration, imbibed it into his inner vision with every nuance of being and despatched it to Astor as one might return a homing pigeon. The attempt took all his energy. No one noticed the snake or that it lay perfectly still.
      “You will have things to talk over,” murmured the hunchback, “so I will leave you but…I will be back.”  He wandered off as casually and unobtrusively as he had arrived.
     “Some weirdo!” exclaimed Mick. “Tell me he was joking!” But the look on Mulac’s face told another story. “Well, that’s great! That’s just bloody great! First you take my girlfriend, now you take my life!  Well, let me tell you, sunshine, I’m no pushover!” 
      “Sit down, shut up and listen very carefully,” growled Mulac. Trembling with a mixture of fear and rage, Mick did as he was told. “What must be done must be done,” said Mulac slowly, “But we do have a choice. There is a way we can beat the Stalker at its own game.”
      “How?” snapped Mick, all ears…
      “It requires one of us to give his body willingly to the other. That way, the Stalker has no claim on us and the Devil must seek elsewhere for new playthings.”
     “What?” cried Mick, “You want me to stand here like a lemon while you stick a knife in me or something? You must be joking!”
      “A knife will do...” Mulac shrugged. “....and as I would prefer a clean death, I will show you exactly where to place it.”
      Mick’s jaw dropped. “You want me to kill you?”
     “But first you must rid your heart of all hatred,” Mulac continued as if he hadn’t heard. “It is true that I love Bethan. It is also true, I think, that she loves me. Are you man enough yet to accept that and take my hand?”
      Mulac stretched out his right hand. Shadow and firelight streaked across the flesh. Mick was reminded of the rabbit he had watched the Nu-gen skin earlier with grudging admiration for his skill with a knife. This Mulac, he had to admit, wasn’t half as bad a bloke as he’d once thought.  Hadn’t he proved it already among the ghastly Shades that roamed Nul-y-Gray? Now, here he is offering his lifeThe man is no saint but he has to be the next best thing.
      Mick was lost in admiration.  If Beth has to love someone else, she could do a lot worse than Mulac, he pondered ruefully.
      “Friends?” asked Mulac simply.
      Mick grasped the hand firmly. “Friends,” he agreed.
     The Nu-gen’s smile was as broad as it was sad. “Good. You are a worthy friend, motherworlder.”  To his horror, Mick found himself blushing. “Now, we must be done before the Stalker returns.” He leaned against a wall of the cave, ripped open his tunic and bared a hairy chest. Next, he took a knife from a sheath at his belt and handed it to Mick.  “Don’t be afraid. Take it. I will guide your hand.” Mick could only stare at the blade, glinting angrily in the fire’s subdued glow. In a daze, he took the proffered hilt and felt Mulac grab his wrist. “Here. All you have to do is raise your knife arm and strike. Mick did so.
      All at once, it was as if a mist had cleared before his very eyes and Mick’s appalled consciousness took in the bared chest, the knife…the full impact of what he was about to do. “I can’t!” he cried and dropped his arm, “I won’t!”
      “You must!” Mulac insisted.
       “Why don’t  we make a run for it?” Mick sobbed.
      “No one runs from a Stalker,” said Mulac grimly, “You either beat him at his own game or hand over your soul on a platter. I beg you, motherworlder, kill me. You have proved yourself a man, now prove yourself a friend.”
      “I can’t!”
      “I am Nu-gen, motherworlder. We live only to be free. Can you imagine such as I kept in the Devil’s own chains forever? I could not bear it, yet I would have no choice. My only choice is now. and I have made it, just as you have made yours. Honour it, motherworlder. Don’t think about killing a friend but saving a soul. Strike now before it is too late!”
      Mick raised the knife again, took his time and let his blurred vision focus exactly where the Nu-gen had directed. He thought he heard a sound. Had the Stalker returned?  Was it already too late?  Mulac’s imploring expression tugged at his heartstrings until he was sure they must break.  This was not Tonbridge Wells, he kept telling himself, but Mamelon.  It had to be a dream, a nightmare. Whatever, he could not, must not let his friend down. No-ooooooooooooooooo!!! He screamed inwardly and lunged with the blade. Mulac’s body crumpled, his own knife embedded in his heart. As the enormity and full horror of what he had done struck home, Mick collapsed in a sobbing heap on the ground.  
      “There’s no time for all that now,” a familiar voice seemed to be calling to Mick across time and space. “Come along, we must make haste before that dreadful Stalker comes back. I’ll say!” Ricci, restored to his old self, finally stopped wringing his hands long enough to assist a grief-stricken Mick to his feet. Mick, too distraught to even question the queer little man’s presence, allowed himself to be led away. “You can cry all you want later although you should be proud of yourselves, both of you. Now, come on. I’m really not up to dealing with a Stalker after everything I’ve been through. There has to be another way out of this cave, there just has to be!”
      Ricci grabbed Mick’s hand and ran. Mechanically, Mick’s feet complied and soon the pair were twisting and turning, ducking and diving down a maze of tunnels. As if this wasn’t bad enough! wailed Ricci inwardly, but I dare say this is child’s play compared with what we can expect once we reach those wretched Purple Mountains!
      Even in the bleakest despair through which he ran, Mick could have sworn he heard faint echoes of the Okay Song and gratefully clung to the comfort it brought.
     Far behind them, the figure of a woman with white hair piled high, took the lifeless Mulac in her arms. Etta, the magela, would have wept. Only, she had no tears left. They had all been shed long, long ago. Instead, she crooned a lullaby older even than the rocks where they huddled and prayed Astor would be in time.

To be continued